The Story of a Bad Boy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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XV. Desert Night

THE gray stallion, finding the rein loose on his neck, trotted forward and overtook the dog, and thereafter followed at his heels. With the setting of the sun a slight breeze stirred, and freshened as twilight fell, rolling away the sultry atmosphere. Then the black desert night mantled the plain.

For a while this blackness soothed the pain of Hare's sun-blinded eyes. It was a relief to have the unattainable horizon line blotted out. But by-and-by the opaque gloom brought home to him, as the day had never done, the reality of his solitude. He was alone in this immense place of barrenness, and his dumb companions were the world to him. Wolf pattered onward, a silent guide; and Silvermane followed, never lagging, sure-footed in the dark, faithful to his master. All the love Hare had borne the horse was as nothing to that which came to him on this desert night. In and out, round and round, ever winding, ever zigzagging, Silvermane hung close to Wolf, and the sandy lanes between the bowlders gave forth no sound. Dog and horse, free to choose their trail, trotted onward miles and miles into the night.

A pale light in the east turned to a glow, then to gold, and the round disc of the moon silhouetted the black bowlders on the horizon. It cleared the dotted line and rose, an oval orange-hued strange moon, not mellow nor silvery nor gloriously brilliant as Hare had known it in the past, but a vast dead-gold melancholy orb, rising sadly over the desert. To Hare it was the crowning reminder of lifelessness; it fitted this world of dull gleaming stones.

Silvermane went lame and slackened his trot, causing Hare to rein in and dismount. He lifted the right forefoot, the one the horse had favored, and found a stone imbedded tightly in the cloven hoof. He pried it out with his knife and mounted again. Wolf shone faintly far ahead, and presently he uttered a mournful cry which sent a chill to the rider's heart. The silence had been oppressive before; now it was terrible. It was not a silence of life. It had been broken suddenly by Wolf's howl, and had closed sharply after it, without echo; it was a silence of death.

Hare took care not to fall behind Wolf again, he had no wish to hear that cry repeated. The dog moved onward with silent feet; the horse wound after him with hoofs padded in the sand; the moon lifted and the desert gleamed; the bowlders grew larger and the lanes wider. So the night wore on, and Hare's eyelids grew heavy, and his whole weary body cried out for rest and forgetfulness. He nodded until he swayed in the saddle; then righted himself, only to doze again. The east gave birth to the morning star. The whitening sky was the harbinger of day. Hare could not bring himself to face the light and heat, and he stopped at a wind-worn cave under a shelving rock. He was asleep when he rolled out on the sand-strewn floor. Once he awoke and it was still day, for his eyes quickly shut upon the glare. He lay sweltering till once more slumber claimed him. The dog awakened him, with cold nose and low whine. Another twilight had fallen. Hare crawled out, stiff and sore, hungry and parching with thirst. He made an attempt to eat, but it was a failure. There was a dry burning in his throat, a dizzy feeling in his brain, and there were red flashes before his eyes. Wolf refused meat, and Silvermane turned from the grain, and lowered his head to munch a few blades of desert grass.

Then the journey began, and the night fell black. A cool wind blew from the west, the white stars blinked, the weird moon rose with its ghastly glow. Huge bowlders rose before him in grotesque shapes, tombs and pillars and statues of Nature's dead, carved by wind and sand. But some had life in Hare's disordered fancy. They loomed and towered over him, and stalked abroad and peered at him with deep-set eyes.

Hare fought with all his force against this mood of gloom. Wolf was not a phantom; he trotted forward with unerring instinct; and he would find water, and that meant life. Silvermane, desert-steeled, would travel to the furthermost corner of this hell of sand-swept stone. Hare tried to collect all his spirit, all his energies, but the battle seemed to be going against him. All about him was silence, breathless silence, insupportable silence of ages. Desert spectres danced in the darkness. The worn-out moon gleamed golden over the worn-out waste. Desolation lurked under the sable shadows.

Hare rode on into the night, tumbled from his saddle in the gray of dawn to sleep, and stumbled in the twilight to his drooping horse. His eyes were blind now to the desert shapes, his brain burned and his tongue filled his mouth. Silvermane trod ever upon Wolf's heels; he had come into the kingdom of his desert-strength; he lifted his drooping head and lengthened his stride; weariness had gone and he snorted his welcome to something on the wind. Then he passed the limping dog and led the way.

Hare held to the pommel and bent dizzily forward in the saddle. Silvermane was going down, step by step, with metallic clicks upon flinty rock. Whether he went down or up was all the same to Hare; he held on with closed eyes and whispered to himself. Down and down, step by step, cracking the stones with iron-shod hoofs, the gray stallion worked his perilous way, sure-footed as a mountain-sheep. Then he stopped with a great slow heave and bent his head.

The black bulge of a canyon rim blurred in Hare's hot eyes. A trickling sound penetrated his tired brain. His ears had grown like his eyes-- false. Only another delusion! As he had been tortured with the sight of lake and stream now he was to be tortured with the sound of running water. Yet he listened, for it was sweet even in its mockery. What a clear musical tinkle, like silver bells tossing on the wind! He listened. Soft murmuring flow, babble and gurgle, little hollow fall and splash!

Suddenly Silvermane, lifting his head, broke the silence of the canyon with a great sigh of content. It pierced the dull fantasy of Hare's mind; it burst the gloomy spell. The sigh and the snort which followed were Silvermane's triumphant signals when he had drunk his fill.

Hare fell from the saddle. The gray dog lay stretched low in the darkness. Hare crawled beside him and reached out with his hot hands. Smooth cool marble rock, growing slippery, then wet, led into running water. He slid forward on his face and wonderful cold thrills quivered over his burning skin. He drank and drank until he could drink no more. Then he lay back upon the rock; the madness of his brain went out with the light of the stars, and he slept.

When he awoke red canyon walls leaned far above him to a gap spanned by blue sky. A song of rushing water murmured near his ears. He looked down; a spring gushed from a crack in the wall; Silvermane cropped green bushes, and Wolf sat on his haunches waiting, but no longer with sad eyes and strange mien. Hare raised himself, looking again and again, and slowly gathered his wits. The crimson blur had gone from his eyes and the burning from his skin, and the painful swelling from his tongue.

He drank long and deeply, and rising with clearing thoughts and thankful heart, he kissed Wolf's white head, and laid his arms round Silvermane's neck. He fed them, and ate himself, not without difficulty, for his lips were puffed and his tongue felt like a piece of rope. When he had eaten, his strength came back.

At a word Wolf, with a wag of his tail, splashed into the gravelly stream bed. Hare followed on foot, leading Silvermane. There were little beds of pebbles and beaches of sand and short steps down which the water babbled. The canyon was narrow and tortuous; Hare could not see ahead or below, for the projecting red cliffs, growing higher as he descended, walled out the view. The blue stream of sky above grew bluer and the light and shade less bright. For an hour he went down steadily without a check, and the farther down the rougher grew the way. Bowlders wedged in narrow places made foaming waterfalls. Silvermane clicked down confidently.

The slender stream of water, swelled by seeping springs and little rills, gained the dignity of a brook; it began to dash merrily and hurriedly downward. The depth of the falls, the height of cliffs, and the size of the bowlders increased in the descent. Wolf splashed on unmindful; there was a new spirit in his movements; and when he looked back for his laboring companions there was friendly protest in his eyes. Silvermane's mien plainly showed that where a dog could go he could follow. Silvermane's blood was heated; the desert was an old story to him; it had only tired him and parched his throat; this canyon of downward steps and falls, with ever-deepening drops, was new to him, and roused his mettle; and from his long training in the wilds he had gained a marvellous sure-footedness.

The canyon narrowed as it deepened; the jutting walls leaned together, shutting out the light; the sky above was now a ribbon of blue, only to be seen when Hare threw back his head and stared straight up.

"It'll be easier climbing up, Silvermane," he panted--"if we ever get the chance."

The sand and gravel and shale had disappeared; all was bare clean-washed rock. In many places the brook failed as a trail, for it leaped down in white sheets over mossy cliffs. Hare faced these walls in despair. But Wolf led on over the ledges and Silvermane followed, nothing daunted. At last Hare shrank back from a hole which defied him utterly. Even Wolf hesitated. The canyon was barely twenty feet wide; the floor ended in a precipice; the stream leaped out and fell into a dark cleft from which no sound arose. On the right there was a shelf of rock; it was scarce half a foot broad at the narrowest and then apparently vanished altogether. Hare stared helplessly up at the slanting shut-in walls.

While he hesitated Wolf pattered out upon the ledge and Silvermane stamped restlessly. With a desperate fear of losing his beloved horse Hare let go the bridle and stepped upon the ledge. He walked rapidly, for a slow step meant uncertainty and a false one meant death. He heard the sharp ring of Silvermane's shoes, and he listened in agonized suspense for the slip, the snort, the crash that he feared must come. But it did not come. Seeing nothing except the narrow ledge, yet feeling the blue abyss beneath him, he bent all his mind to his task, and finally walked out into lighter space upon level rock. To his infinite relief Silvermane appeared rounding a corner out of the dark passage, and was soon beside him.

Hare cried aloud in welcome.

The canyon widened; there was a clear demarcation where the red walls gave place to yellow; the brook showed no outlet from its subterranean channel. Sheer exhaustion made Hare almost forget his mission; the strength of his resolve had gone into mechanical toil; he kept on, conscious only of the smart of bruised hands and feet and the ache of laboring lungs.

Time went on and the sun hung in the midst of the broadening belt of blue sky. A long slant of yellow slope led down to a sage-covered level, which Hare crossed, pleased to see blooming cacti and wondering at their slender lofty green stems shining with gold flowers. He descended into a ravine which became precipitous. Here he made only slow advance. At the bottom he found himself in a wonderful lane with an almost level floor; here flowed a shallow stream bordered by green willows. Wolf took the direction of the flowing water. Hare's thoughts were all of Mescal, and his hopes began to mount, his heart to beat high.

He gazed ahead with straining eyes. Presently there was not a break in the walls. A drowsy hum of falling water came to Hare, strange reminder of the oasis, the dull roar of the Colorado, and of Mescal.

His flagging energies leaped into life with the canyon suddenly opening to bright light and blue sky and beautiful valley, white and gold in blossom, green with grass and cottonwood. On a flower-scented wind rushed that muffled roar again, like distant thunder.

Wolf dashed into the cottonwoods. Silvermane whistled with satisfaction and reached for the long grass.

For Hare the light held something more than beauty, the breeze something more than sweet scent of water and blossom. Both were charged with meaning--with suspense.

Wolf appeared in the open leaping upon a slender brown-garbed form.

"Mescal!" cried Hare.

With a cry she ran to him, her arms outstretched, her hair flying in the wind, her dark eyes wild with joy.


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